Monday 23 October 2017

Lam must build on Connacht's French persistence

Coach needs to nurture talent of young heroes and use shock Toulouse triumph as springboard for brighter future

Connacht coach Pat Lam gives the thumbs up after his side's shock win in France
Connacht coach Pat Lam gives the thumbs up after his side's shock win in France
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was the greatest ever weekend for provincial rugby as all four sides delivered winning performances to warm the cockles of Irish hearts, irrespective of what sporting persuasion tickles your fancy.

Yes, there have been great achievements by each team in the past, but for all four to deliver within 24 hours, given the context, made for a proud weekend for Irish folk everywhere.

Yes, it is only a game -- but sport mirrors life and on a magical weekend, we were transfixed through rugby, thereby enabling us to feel better about ourselves and the world at large. If that isn't the essence of sport and its place in life, then what is?

Where to begin? I was in Franklin's Gardens where I witnessed the most complete performance by an Irish team in the Heineken Cup on the road. Leinster weren't just good -- they were magnificent.

Before the game, I thought they would do well to get out of Northampton with a losing bonus point. Oh, we of little faith. As I travelled over and back with the team, I can assure you humble pie has never tasted sweeter.


But brilliant though that winning performance was, it was bettered by what transpired in Toulouse on Sunday afternoon.

Bettered not in terms of quality, accuracy and precision rugby of the highest quality, but in the context of what Connacht achieved by winning in rugby-mad south-west France. As I sat riveted to the TV from first minute to last, I found myself living every moment; I doubt I was alone.

This was the equivalent of Sligo Rovers going to Camp Nou or the Bernabeu in the Champions League and turning over Barca or Real Madrid before the disbelieving home faithful. Four-time winners, five years unbeaten at home in Europe with a working budget close to 15 times that of the Irish minnows and 1/200 pre-match favourites, it looked a mismatch.

But therein lies the beauty of this fantastic competition; something the Mark McCaffertys of this world will never understand.

Money can never guarantee success -- look at Racing Metro and the mess they are in.

Connacht may be bottom of the Pro 12, but anyone who has watched any of their games this season will know how close they have been to getting it right. That said, nobody gave them a snowball in hell's chance on Sunday.

The real plus for head coach Pat Lam and his ultra-committed players was that this was no smash and grab. Yes, they were defending for all they were worth just two points ahead in the dying minutes, but any other result would have been an absolute travesty.

They were on the rack in the opening phase but having survived that early onslaught, they controlled the tempo, with or without the ball, for most of what followed.

It was nail-biting stuff; only for a 14-point swing coming up to the hour-mark when a brilliant counter-attacking try was called back by the TMO, this outstanding win might well have been more convincing on the scoreboard.

They were heroes one and all. For youngsters like Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, Matt Healy, Kieran Marmion, Mick Kearney, Jake Heenan, Eoin McKeon and Craig Ronaldson, this result will be invaluable in their individual and collective development.

Henshaw, Marmion and Heenan along with skipper Craig Clarke and the incomparable John Muldoon were particularly outstanding.

We all love it when the underdog has his day -- but this win, and the nature of it, promises so much more substantial than that.

In the medium-term, the trick for Lam is in balancing the appropriate imports with the best of local talent.

For Leinster, of course, pre-season goals occupy a different plane to Connacht. In Franklin's Gardens (scene also to Connacht's previous best European success on the road, when under Warren Gatland they toppled Northampton in 1998 in what is now the Challenge Cup) they weren't just good -- they were irresistible.

They outfought, outmuscled, outclassed and outplayed a side second in the Premiership table.

On this form, they are going to take some beating. No medals are handed out coming up to Christmas, but this was a chilling message to the rest of Europe.

They were all brilliant, but particular eye-catching performances came from Rob Kearney (back to his confident best), Brian O'Driscoll, Ian Madigan (by way of the basics), Eoin Reddan, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Jamie Heaslip (epitome of consistency).

As for Luke Fitzgerald, suffice to say -- watch out everyone, he's back.

In fact, so good a weekend was it for Irish rugby that almost 'by the way' Munster and Ulster registered a dozen tries between them in demolishing Perpignan (36-8) and Treviso (48-0) respectively.

Our professional game is in a pretty good place, including three of the top four in the Pro12.

And to think this great Heineken Cup tournament might never appear in the same format again.

Shame on those central to pulling out the English clubs, who bring so much to the best tournament northern hemisphere rugby has ever seen. Shame and shame again.

Irish Independent

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